Wow. I had the thrill of a lifetime a few weeks ago when I had the tremendous opportunity to visit Friendship PCS’s Collegiate Academy. The highlight was being able to sit in Daniel Moses’ Advanced Placement world history class. I’m not sure I can accurately describe with words what I saw but I’m going to take a shot.
The approximately 30 high school juniors were divided into two teams at the north and south ends of the classroom. Mr. Moses, who won the 2012 Friendship Teacher of the Year Award, began the period by passing out a two page handout which contained a factual story. The students had a set amount of time to read the passage, identify the main theme of the material, and then to support the thesis with evidence contained in the piece. I learned later in a fascinating conversation with Dr Arsallah Shairzay, Friendship’s extremely knowledgeable Dean of Early College and Director of Advanced Placement, that this exercise is modeled on a skill assessed on the A.P. exam.
Next the class was asked to provide the who, what, when, where, and why of four historical genocides. Again, it was a fast paced exercise that the students had 10 minutes to complete. Next it was on to a debate between the two groups of pupils on the question of whether the United States has a moral obligation to provide funding, weapons, and soldiers to prevent genocide in other regions of the world. Students did not know whether they would be taking the affirmative or negative on the position before they were separated into groups. It was fun to see the reaction on their faces when they learned which side they would be on.
Each team received points when various criteria were met. Credit was given when a new speaker joined the conversation, an original line of reasoning was offered, a direct counter argument was provided, or when a historical example was added. Teams lost points when a student interrupted another, even if it applied to one of those in their own group.
Mr. Moses moved the debate quickly between the two sides. There was a specific interval allowed for the initial contention, then another limit on the rebuttal. Sometimes one group was permitted to have many students speak before the other side received a turn, at other portions of the debate it was as if I was watching a professional volleyball match. The students were as articulate as those you would find attending universities.
I had a couple of observations from the class. My first impression was that Mr. Moses made it appear that he was not teaching the students. In an almost magical way he drew information from the pupils in a manner that looked like they were instructing themselves. The second overwhelming take away revolved around the portions of the class alloted to the work accomplished during my visit. There was a palpable excitement created by having to complete a task in five, two, or ten minutes.
In an interview after the class with Mr. Moses I learned that this focus on specific blocks of time for work is called pacing. The instructor talked about its importance in the supporting material distributed at the Teacher of the Year Ceremony:
“In the glossy brochure that accompanies the event Mr. Moses explains his philosophy of teaching. He has four principles. First, he explains that every child can learn. Next, he said he places a great emphasis on rules being maintained consistently in the classroom. His third principle is that ‘his classroom is one in which rigor and pacing is obsessed over.’ But I think it is Mr. Moses’ final point that is the most important one, which he explained in his acceptance speech. ‘All you really need is love; love for teaching, love for history, and love for the kids.’”
The instructor went on to explain to me that teaching is individualized to the student. Mr. Moses pointed out that although all of the pupils received material to read at the start of the class the worksheets were not all at the same academic level. Once thing this allows Friendship to do is to include special education students in mainstream classes. Mr. Moses related that there were special education kids in the class I observed which is something I never would have guessed.
The individuals Mr. Moses’ taught were not the only impressive young people I met that day. I began my visit at Friendship Collegiate with a panel discussion involving six students. Dressed as if they were about to go on job interviews were Jay Common (sophomore), Anthony Green (senior), Phillip Pride (senior), Kendra Spruill (senior), Alassane Traore (senior) and Brian White (senior).
There were many similarities among these pupils. All the seniors are attending college. They uniformly have taken one or more A.P. classes. As a group they had extremely positive comments about Friendship Collegiate. There were common themes. “Outstanding support; high expectations; school teaches you to be a better person; the staff cares about you,” they proudly remarked.
One issue that is often brought up about public charter schools is that they separate kids from others where they live that go to the neighborhood school. Since almost all of these students come from Wards seven and eight I asked if this was a problem. Mr. Common said it best in response to my inquiry when he commented, “Usually, if they are not going to Friendship they are not my friend.”
One area where these students get a heads up on going to college is through taking courses at universities over the summer. Mr. Common will spend three weeks at Cornell through an OSSE Scholarship. Ms. Spruill, a POSSE Scholarship winner who is attending Bucknell University, spent a couple of weeks at Boston University. Mr. Pride, who was also awarded a POSSE Scholarship and will attend Sewanee: the University of the South, has been to Carnegie Mellon, also on an OSSE scholarship.
Dr. Shairzay related to me other ways that Friendship prepares students for future success. It starts with a Summer Bridge Program in which incoming ninth graders come for tutoring before the start of the school year. Those behind grade level in English and Math take two blocks of these subject areas during the regular school year. Eleventh and twelfth graders, through the Pathway to Early College Program, have the opportunity to take college classes at the University of Maryland and at the University of the District of Columbia. In addition, Friendship is in the process of developing its own POSSE Program through the University of Wisconsin. The school is working to enhance its Student Ambassador Program at other institutions of higher learning, which provides a support network for students once they arrive at college.
Friendship has also been extremely successful with students winning D.C. Achievers Scholarships. These are awards of up to $50,000 toward college. This charter, according to Dr. Shairzay, has had over 600 students win the scholarship which represents about 37 percent of all students in the nation’s capital that have been provided with the Gates Foundation sponsored grant.
Friendship also provides classes in what are called the Academies. These include Arts and Communication, Engineering and Technology, Health and Human Services, Business Administration, and Allied Health. Interestingly, under the Engineering and Technology Academy students can take classes in CISCO. Since I am a hospital administrator I would love to volunteer lecture as part of the Introduction to Healthcare class which is part of the Allied Health major.
The programs and support provided by Friendship Public Charter School has had a measureable positive impact. Friendship Collegiate educates about 1,100 students in grades nine through twelve. 60 percent of the kids are males, 99.4 percent of all students are African-American. 72 percent of the children are eligible for free or reduced price lunch. The four year high school graduation rate is 91 percent, 35 percentage points higher than the average for regular D.C. schools and 14 points higher than the D.C. charter school average. 24 Collegiate students have earned POSSE college scholarships and three students have been awarded Gates Millennium Scholarships, which cover all college costs through graduate school. In all, students from this school have been awarded over $40 million in college scholarship money. 100 percent of each graduating class has been accepted to college.
During my student interviews my hero Donald Hense, Friendship’s founder and CEO, came into the room. The students’ faces lit up upon his entering. Mr. Hense then spent some time going around the room telling me interesting facts about each of the young people I had met. I was amazed understanding that Friendship now has about 8,000 children in its system. However, I realized at the same time that this is what is possible when someone wakes up at four a.m. each morning to start his work. If the love of students is what is allowing them to succeed when in other schools they have failed, then at least at Friendship it starts at the top.